Cranks of a feather, part 3: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and the antivaccine movement team up with the Nation of Islam to attack the CDC

No doubt, regular readers are probably somewhat surprised that I didn’t discuss the antivaccine rally scheduled to be held in Atlanta last weekend that I wrote about last week. As you might recall, this rally consisted of two crappy tastes that taste crappy together, namely Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and the antivaccine movement together with the Nation of Islam. Given that the Nation of Islam, besides being a truly crank religion on its own, of late has gotten very cozy with the Church of Scientology, thus amplifying the crank factor by orders of magnitude (at least).

Readers not familiar with this recent and very odd alliance (given that the antivaccine movement is overwhelmingly white, educated, and affluent) might reasonably ask: How on earth did Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and the rest of the antivaccine movement meet and ally themselves together? Basically, it dates back this summer to antivaccinationists’ opposition to SB 277 in California, the bill (now law) that eliminated non-medical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. It’s also related to the “#CDCwhistleblower” manufactroversy, in which CDC scientist William Thompson. The story basically goes as follows.

Between November 2013 and July 2014, a troubled CDC psychologist named William Thompson, who had been involved with some seminal studies testing whether there was a link between vaccines and autism—surprise! surprise! they found there weren’t—engaged in a number of phone calls with an biochemical engineer turned incompetent antivaccine epidemiologist named Brian Hooker. Not realizing that Hooker was recording the phone calls, Thompson took the opportunity to kvetch to Hooker about the CDC in general and his co-investigators in particular, especially Frank DeStefano and Thompson’s other co-authors on an important 2004 paper that examined whether there was any relationship between MMR vaccination and autism. As a result, Brian Hooker did an epically incompetent “reanalysis” of the paper and managed to get it published in a relatively new journal. What this reanalysis claimed to find was that DeStefano et al. had done some statistical prestidigitation to eliminate a statistically significant difference in African American males correlating with age of MMR vaccination. Of course, as I discussed at the time (as did many others), Hooker, in his love of “simplicity,” had neglected to control for important confounders and imputed way too much significance to a spurious correlation that disappeared when proper correction for confounders was made. As I’ve put it many times, simplicity in statistical analyses of epidemiological data is not a virtue. In any case, so incredibly incompetent was Hooker’s analysis that the journal actually retracted the paper.

Likely because Brian Hooker couldn’t keep his big mouth shut about his “good friend” and source within the CDC, Andrew Wakefield found out about Thompson. Hooker appears to have wanted to keep Thompson secret a while longer, the better to pump him for more information, but Wakefield couldn’t resist making a video proclaiming the “CDC whistleblower.” It wasn’t long before the identity of this “CDC whistleblower” was revealed, resulting in a Twitter storm from antivaccinationists who seemed to believe that the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement (that the CDC knew vaccines cause autism but were hiding it from the public) had just been proven. Nothing really ever came of it other than Wakefield complaining with Hooker to the CDC about “scientific fraud,” leading to the destruction of thousands of irony meters everywhere, and to Representative Bill Posey (R-FL) giving a mostly-ignored talk in front of the House accusing the CDC of malfeasance, possibly revealing that William Thompson really is antivaccine.

Fast forward to this summer. In the wake of the Disneyland measles outbreak, California was on the way towards passing SB 277, a bill that eliminated nonmedical exemptions to school and day care vaccine mandates. It was at this time that the antivaccine movement in California and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. cozied up with the Nation of Islam to help oppose SB 277 by using images of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and invoking the “CDC whistleblower” to convince Minister Tony Muhammad and Minister Louis Farrakhan that the CDC was covering up a link between MMR vaccination and autism in African American boys. Brian Hooker and RFK, Jr. even spoke at a Nation of Islam event held at a Church of Scientology public center.

Thus was an alliance between the oddest of odd bedfellows born. There was so much antivaccine pseudoscience presented that even Orac cannot apply much-deserved not-so-Respectful Insolence to it all. I will therefore concentrate mainly on RFK, Jr. and Minister Tony Muhammad of the Nation of Islam. The two are not that far apart in terms of their dedication to evidence, if you know what I mean.

Right from the start, a little taste of conspiracy

Antivaccinationists are about the crankiest cranks that there are; so it’s not surprising that something happened at the Friday protest that perfectly encapsulates antivaccine thinking and the tendency of these groups to engage in conspiracy mongering. It involved a worker power washing the wall near where some of the protesters were yelling, leading a particularly “enthusiastic” antivaccine activist on Twitter to this:

Later, another protester posted this meme:

A meme that flowed through the Twittersphere on Friday morning, almost as soon as the protest had started.

A meme that flowed through the Twittersphere on Friday morning, almost as soon as the protest had started.

As Tim Farley made clear in a Twitter exchange with these two antivaccine activists and in this video, all that was happening was that there was a worker power washing a wall near where they were protesting.

My first reaction to this was, understandably I think: WTF? Fortunately, Tim Farley was out on his morning run and captured video:

As you can see, it was just some poor worker doing his job, not some nefarious security detail from the CDC-pharma cabal “hosing down” the protesters. I feel sorry for the guy. On the other hand, he probably has an amusing story to tell his friends over beers about the cranks who thought he was some sort of secret security agent.

Elsewhere, I saw Periscope videos with protestors chanting “Stop killing our babies!” and “No more vaccinations!” Unfortunately, I didn’t figure out how to save these videos before their 24 hour expiration time hit. However, to give you a flavor, there does remain one saved video showing a woman ranting about how you “cannot inject toxic chemicals and kill our babies” and explicitly comparing the vaccination program to the Holocaust (“we’re gonna have another…where you put ’em in a camp and kill ’em”):

But, no, this wasn’t an antivaccine protest. Oh, no.

In discussing the rest of the proceedings, I’m going to include a lot of video, not so much because I expect anyone to watch it all (I assure you as someone who’s watched many of these videos that they are all very tedious to watch), but so that those who are inclined to check my commentary against the video record may do so if they doubt what I write.

Tony Muhammad brings the religious antivaccine paranoia

The Nation of Islam has always been full of bizarre ideas. Perhaps that’s the reason why over the last several years it has become more and more closely associated with the Church of Scientology. It’s therefore not surprising that Minister Tony Muhammad would be susceptible to the race angle. Given the higher level of distrust of the medical profession and medical research among African Americans, not entirely unjustified given history like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, it doesn’t take much to convince someone like Muhammad that the white-dominated CDC, government, and pharmaceutical injuries are harming black babies, even if that claim is based on evidence as bogus as Brian Hooker’s “reanalysis” of DeStefano et al. and claims of a “CDC whistleblower.” I include Minister Muhammad’s two speeches if you wish to watch them. They are strikingly similar to each other, such that I wouldn’t bother to watch both. They also show just how much the Nation of Islam, at least as represented by Tony Muhammad, has become antivaccine. Here he is on Friday night.

And here he was on Saturday afternoon (another version here):

Much of both of these talks was devoted to religion, thanking the sponsors of the event, and praising Barbara Loe Fisher and RFK, Jr. more than talking about vaccines, such that I’m only going to focus on the most telling part, this passage, included in both talks in one form or another. It’s so telling that I transcribed it extensively:

The Honorable Elijah Muhammad in the 1930s and 40s warned the Nation of Islam that there are wicked people in high places who are coming up with experimental chemicals that could hurt the human family of the planet. And we were always warned not to take certain vaccines. And as a result, we have not suffered from the autism, from the measles, from the many viruses and sicknesses that are happening in our community. The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan also said, “This is prophecy. I need you to listen.” He said when you go into the Book of Exodus, there was a Pharaoh who saw in the Book of Exodus that the slaves was getting restless, and Pharaoh knew that it was time for a deliverer to bring them out from under his control. And Pharaoh made this statement. “Come on, let us deal wisely with them.” Then he said, “Let’s kill the males and spare the females.”

Then Minister Farrakhan went to the New Testament. Herod looked at the stars and knew that it was time for a deliverer to come and lead the people into a new kingdom. And Herod said, “Let’s kill all babies two and under.” So it is no surprise that the vaccine makers have now increased the vaccine and are trying to get it to our boys before they are three years old. It’s in prophecy. He then went to the Book of Revelation as I close. He said in Revelation there is a woman who is pregnant with a child, and then there’s a dragon standing in front of the woman. The dragon wanted to devour the child before it was born. Now big pharmaceutical companies they have become the dragon of this whole planet, and all of their products once you inject them into your body or take them into your mouth it drags your mind down and you lose control.

Here is the relevant passage from Revelation:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.”[a] And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.

OK, so Minister Muhammad wasn’t exactly correct about the dragon wanting to devour the savior before he was born; rather he was waiting until he was born. Still, Tony Muhammad told both crowds that vaccines are part of Biblical prophecy (and not a good part), that they are of a piece with the Pharaoh’s slaughter of the children of the enslaved Israelites, Herod’s slaughter of the male children under two, and the dragon of Revelation devouring the savior as soon as he is born, likening big pharma to that dragon of Revelation.

But don’t you dare call Tony Muhammad and the Nation of Islam “antivaccine,” even though it is clearly true.

What I’m afraid of is that the cynical coupling of antivaccine imagery with religious imagery and the distrust many African-Americans feel towards the medical establishment will promote the same sorts of pockets of low vaccine uptake that we’ve already seen among affluent white communities with large number of antivaccine parents, in the poorest African American communities, whose children are not as well fed, do not have access to the best health care, and will therefore suffer more than the children of the “Thinking Moms.” Worse, in his talk on Friday night, Muhammad promised that he was working with hip hop artists to get the message out, claiming that he had been invited to meet with Atlanta artists on Thursday night.

Oh, and to him pharmaceutical companies are gangsters, pure evil.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. lets his antivaccine freak flag fly even higher

Longtime readers might remember that the post that arguably got me the most noticed in my first year of blogging was a discussion of the errors of fact and science coupled with massive conspiracy mongering in Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s 2005 antivaccine magnum opus “Deadly Immunity“. I’d periodically discuss some bit of antivaccine misinformation or pseudoscience RFK, Jr. was promoting, but then he seemed to disappear off the face of the earth (at least as far as vaccines went) for a few years, with hardly a mention. Then, in 2014 he resurfaced in a big way, publishing a book about the evils of thimerosal in vaccines, something I thought to be very quaint, so very 2005, given that there hasn’t been more than trace amounts of thimerosal in vaccines since 2002, including making a guest appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher and The Dr. Oz Show to spew his usual antivaccine nonsense while risibly proclaiming himself “fiercely pro-vaccine,” and, of course, teaming up with the Nation of Islam to oppose SB 277 and attack the CDC.

Here he was speaking to the antivaccine activists at Grant Park on Saturday. It’s painful to listen to:

I’m going to leap to near the end of RFK, Jr.’s speech first because yesterday the antivaccine cranks over at that wretched hive of scum and quackery known as Age of Autism were all excited about a “challenge” that he issued to Frank DeStefano, the scientist whom William Thompson accused, along with his coauthors, of research fraud (click to embiggen):

The derp is strong in this one. Why does RFK, Jr. think  that a reputable scientist would sue over the wild-eyed rantings of a pseudoscientific crank?

The derp is strong in this one. Why does RFK, Jr. think that a reputable scientist would sue over the wild-eyed rantings of a pseudoscientific crank?

If you watch the video above, you’ll see that, after some silence over some of RFK, Jr.’s more—shall we say?—bizarre stylings, the couple hundred people or so watching the talk cheered lustily. For some reason, antivaccinationists seemed to think that RFK, Jr.’s challenge to DeStefano to sue him if he thinks he’s being slandered was some brilliant strategy. Basically, RFK, Jr. was full of bluster, sound and fury, signifying nothing. He’s rich; so he can afford to defend a slander suit, and if DeStefano were ever stupid enough to sue him RFK, Jr. would then be able to subject DeStefano to discovery. Basically, given that one’s reputation probably can’t be damaged much, if at all, by the bleatings of a lying crank like RFK, Jr. accusing him of a crime he didn’t commit, DeStefano would be wise to ignore this opportunistic “challenge.” No doubt RFK, Jr. knows that and knows that DeStefano won’t sue him. It was all theater designed to get the troops fired up, nothing more.

It’s not surprising that RFK, Jr. ended with theater, because he started with theater as well, theater designed seemingly to convince anyone not in the antivaccine movement watching that he is really, truly not antivaccine. As has become his routine, RFK, Jr. clutched his pearls mightily to the point of crushing them with his bare hands and loudly objected to the news coverage of the #CDCtruth event that described the protesters as “antivaccine.” He repeated what has become a risible cliché in his repertoire and woundedly proclaimed himself “fiercely pro-vaccine,” a line that never fails to get a hearty chuckle from me.

Once again, I note that RFK, Jr. repeated his oft-repeated bit of misinformation about how there have been four “studies” (or investigations) of the CDC that have found it to be a cesspit of corruption. These distortions have been discussed before, but apparently I need to mention them again, at least briefly. For instance, RFK, Jr. claimed that the “Congressional Oversight Committee” investigated the CDC for three years and found all sorts of corruption. Of course, what RFK, Jr. was clearly referring to was Rep. Dan Burton’s hearings back in the day, or to the mummer’s farce that was Rep. Darryl Issa’s “autism” hearing in 2012. Probably both. Similarly, he noted an investigation by Senator Tom Coburn, who issued this report in 2007. I can’t help but note the report discussed potential financial mismanagement, but nothing in it implicated the vaccine program. Rather, it concentrated on Congressional earmarks being funneled through the CDC to various states, such as grants to Hawaii earmarked by Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and extravagance in building the Thomas R. Harkin Global Communications (and Visitor) Center. Given that Coburn was a Republican and Inouye and Harkin were Democrats, one can’t help but sense some political score settling in this report. Read it for yourself and see.

RFK, Jr. also cited an investigation by the HHS Office of Research Integrity (ORI) into CDC misconduct last year and the resignation of its director, who criticized the bureaucracy in his resignation letter. I can’t help but strongly suspect that what he was referring to was the very manufactroversy known as the “CDC Whistleblower scandal” that isn’t a scandal and didn’t show that the CDC covered up data showing an alleged link between the MMR vaccine and autism in African American boys. Brian Hooker, Andrew Wakefield, and James Moody did write a letter to the HHS ORI last October. I also note that the resignation letter of the former director of the ORI, David Wright, who resigned in February 2014, is publicly available online. Tellingly, there is nothing about the CDC in his letter, which complains mainly of a hidebound and secretive bureaucracy and Dr. Wright’s frustration at how difficult it was for him to get anything done. While it’s true that Wright did characterize HHS as a “remarkably dysfunctional bureaucracy” in his resignation letter, I couldn’t find any primary sources to back up RFK, Jr.’s quotes attributed to Wright about how the agency is so corrupt as to be unfixable. I call BS on RFK, Jr.’s claim.

I also call BS on RFK, Jr.’s claim about Paul Offit, too. He was lying again (see the 16:45 mark). Calling Offit the “Lex Luthor of vaccines,” RFK, Jr. also referred to Offit as a “toady of Merck” because he holds the Maurice R. Hillman Chair in Vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Playing on the ignorance of how endowed chairs work, RFK, Jr. claimed that because Offit holds this chair he is in the pocket of Merck. Of course, Merck, like many corporations, has a charitable foundation, and the charitable foundation donated an endowment to found the Maurice Hillman Chair, which Hillman had worked to set up before his death, specifically $1.5 million, while the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) provided $500,000. Most importantly, Merck has no say over who holds the chair, as described in the press release announcing the chair:

The Hilleman Chair will be awarded to a physician/scientist making significant contributions to vaccinology on the standing faculty of Penn. The Hilleman Chair holder will be selected by an interdisciplinary search committee appointed by the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Dean, School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

One notes that RFK, Jr., either through sloppiness or dishonesty, also seemed to say that Offit was awarded this chair in 1989, before he was appointed to the committee that sets the vaccine schedule, implying that he was in the pocket of Merck before he was on that committee. The Hilleman Chair, however, was not established until 2005; so Offit couldn’t have been awarded the chair in 1989.

RFK, Jr. then went on to lie some more. He stated that Paul Offit voted to add the rotavirus vaccine he had invented to the vaccine schedule and that he sold his patent after it was on the schedule. It is a lie that Offit voted on adding a vaccine for which he had an interest, a lie ably refuted by Liz Ditz and Skeptical Raptor. And, no, Offit was not reprimanded by Congress either. He did nothing wrong.

Not surprisingly, RFK, Jr. also misrepresented the science, as he has been doing for more than a decade, even invoking his ad hominem term “biostitutes,” which is his term for scientists he views as having “sold out” to big pharma. Be that as it may, RFK, Jr. laid down the howler that scientists shouldn’t be doing epidemiological science, but rather animal studies, where they can examine animal organs, and toxicological studies in Petrie dishes. His rationale? Because epidemiological studies look at groups and can be manipulated. He even trots out one of the dumbest examples I’ve ever heard, claiming that you can design a study that shows that sex doesn’t make you pregnant by excluding people who are pregnant from the study. I mean, seriously, listen to it for yourself beginning around the 19:00 mark. RFK, Jr. owes me a new keyboard, because I made the mistake of having a mouthful of coffee when that passage played on my laptop! (I really should know better now.) He then claimed that this is the same thing as excluding autistic children and children with neurological disorders before doing the epidemiological study. Never mind that this is done to make it easier to see any observed effects and to avoid confounding. Let’s just put it this way. You can indeed design an epidemiological study to show that sex is not associated with pregnancy, but it would be an epidemiological study of the type that antivaccinationists do: Incompetent.

Indeed, RFK, Jr.’s ignorance of epidemiology is truly even more epic than even Brian Hooker’s. What he says doesn’t even make a tiny amount of sense. Indeed, I bet that even Brian Hooker, if he saw this talk, would cringe.

But don’t you dare call RFK, Jr. “antivaccine,” even though it is true. After all, he claims he is “fiercely pro-vaccine.”

Antivaccine, not pro-safe vaccine

I could have gone through several of the other talks if I wanted this post to balloon to an even more unmanageable than usual size; so I refrained. Much of it was just the same old antivaccine pseudoscience that I’ve been writing about for years. Indeed, I was tempted not to discuss RFK, Jr.’s talk at all, given that it was basically an expanded version of his interview with Bill Maher from a few months ago, complete with the same lies about Paul Offit, the same distortions about the CDC, but with extra added bonus ignorance about science. However, his “challenge” to Frank DeStefano changed my mind. In any case, the only real new wrinkle in this antivaccine rally, the only thing new under the antivaccine sun, are the collaboration of the Nation of Islam and the attempt by antivaccinationists to use them as an “in” to the African-American community. This alliance has the potential to cause real mischief among people who are already disadvantaged with respect to health care.

In the end, though, I find this “rally” (or these “rallies”) to be evidence of just how marginalized the antivaccine movement is. I would like to think they are a sad, last gasp of a dying movement, but, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the antivaccine movement, no matter how beaten down it is, never dies. It’s Halloween week; so I’ll use a slasher flick analogy. Like Michael Myers or Jason, no matter how many times it seems to be dead or dying, the antivaccine movement always returns to endanger our children and kill again. I fear this time it will be no different.